Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The Thing With Feathers

Some weeks ago, I awoke to hear a man on KEXP announce, in a calm, measured voice, that we are all going to die. 
The man is Guy McPherson, an American scientist, professor emeritus of natural resources and ecology and evolutionary biology who taught at the University of Arizona and now resides in Belize. He is a man in his late fifties, tall, affable, easygoing, with thick graying hair and mustache. He is best known for announcing the end of our species, and thousands of other species, in the not too distant future. He has since retired from his academic career. He is free of institutional or political constraint. His move to Belize to live a more simple life off-the-grid allows him the freedom to speak as honestly as possible about our current situation, a dire, doom-laden predicament which he expresses with firmness and a humanitarian appeal to live with even greater intent and keep flossing our teeth. 
It’s an odd but weirdly comforting message. Our imminent doom doesn’t mean giving up and lying around doing nothing, or living recklessly and hedonistically like a rock star on crack cocaine. Nor does McPherson encourage the positive but false project of turning things around via some miracle of geoengineering. That would cause more harm than good. 
But seriously, he hears people say, I have children. They aren’t even in their teens yet. You can’t be serious. Are you saying there’s no hope? No solution at all? We’re all facing imminent death? 
His answer is yes, there is no hope. He doesn’t see hope as a good thing. He sees it as a toxic, misleading enticement, a detrimental form of wishful thinking, what he refers to as “hopium.” Instead, he endorses an outlook and way of living similar to that of Eckhart Tolle. Our time is limited. It always has been. Life, even in normal circumstances, is remarkably short. Live as fully in the moment as possible. Pursue a life of excellence in a culture of mediocrity. Spend time with the people you love. 
Yes, we are doomed, and yes, we have, at best, a few years. But that doesn’t mean surrender to dormancy or wild abandon. It means squeeze every last drop of meaning and joy out of life as you can, while you can. 
I know. It sounds more than a little glib. But a lot of people appreciate McPherson’s calm portrayal of doom. It is refreshing. Talks that deliver messages of doom and gloom and then end on a note of hopeful enterprise  - “here’s what we can do, folks”  -  seem false and calculated to me. 
McPherson underscores his message with an irony: if, hypothetically, we stopped all carbon emissions and greenhouse gases from infiltrating our atmosphere, it would accelerate, not diminish, our predicament. The very pollution that is harming our planet is diffusing sunlight and helping to keep things cool. Without that filtration, the temperatures would rapidly escalate, and so hasten our demise. 
In other words, we can’t turn things around. This is it. Game over. 
Also: it wasn’t just cars and industry that did this. Civilization, in and of itself, is a “heat engine.” Our demise probably began with agriculture. If civilization did not consume energy, then the civilization would be worthless. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. 
The so-called “idea of near extinction,” a phrase which I pulled from McPherson’s Wikipedia page, isn’t so much an idea as a full-blown reality. I wish I could dismiss everything McPherson says, or even some of what he says, as the alarmist, hyperbolic predictions of a man with an agenda of some sort. But I can’t. His information is supported by the data of other scientists, not to mention all the phenomena currently underway. I can’t argue against the ice melting in the arctic and Greenland, the hurricanes that devastated the Florida Keys and Saint Martin and Puerto Rico, the flash draught this last summer in the Midwest which destroyed at least half of the wheat crops, or the smoke-filled skies of last summer here in Seattle.
McPherson always cautions people that he cannot give an exact expiration date, but he does predict that our death will most likely occur within the next five years. That “we” being us, human beings, homo sapiens, the species most directly responsible for the irreparable damage done to this planet. Our home planet.
We are all facing a sixth mass extinction event. Numerous species of plants and animals and highly biodiverse habitats such as coral reefs and rainforest are slated for imminent destruction. There are a number of ways we  - homo sapiens  -  will be eliminated, barring a nuclear holocaust, which would destroy us more abruptly, and perhaps more mercifully, than abrupt climate change; these would be lethal but slower events related to a discombobulated atmosphere: famine, social chaos (plundering, marauding, invasion), wet bulb temperature, in which heat and humidity get so high that we become leaden and delirious as our organs boil in our bodies, or diseases caused by paleobacteria reawakened in the thawed Arctic tundra. None of it looks good. 
Many of these extreme weather events result from a fragmented, disarticulated jet stream. The polar front jet stream, a belt of upper-level winds that for thousands of years have moved in a westerly direction in the tropopause, are what insure enough stability in weather patterns to grow food crops. A solid, expansive polar ice cap is essential to its constancy. But the polar ice cap has been melting at an accelerated rate exceeding that of what scientists have predicted. It won’t be long before it’s the size of a welcome mat. It’s already too small to keep the jet stream together and the ensuing aftereffect has been what climatologist Paul Beckwith terms a “climate casino.” Massive hurricanes, frost quakes, ravaged crops, cataclysmic migrations, high prices and jampacked emergency rooms. 
Symptoms of planetary fever are everywhere. It can be seen in the severe draught in Cape Town, South Africa, in which 3.7 million people will be out of water by this coming April, or the flooding in France, which has submerged millions of homes and crops in the ugly green water risen from the beds of the Seine and Marne rivers. It can be seen in the weather bomb that buried the cities of the U.S. eastern coast and Midwest in snow and brutally cold temperatures. In Boston, pipes froze and cracked. In Florida, iguanas fell out of the trees. 
It can be seen locally in the dramatic decline in bird populations this winter. The most avian life I see during daily four or five-mile run are a few crows, the occasional blue jay, and if I’m lucky, a small flock of robins or a tiny constellation of chickadees. Even the seagulls seem thinned and interspersed, not at all the robust, ubiquitous populations filling the air with that evocative squawk. I’m guessing this has to do with the wildfires of last summer, the smoke drooling down from British Columbia in August, and later that same month, the choking haze from the fires in the Cascades. Our cat had a seizure on each of the two worse days of air pollution. I can’t imagine how it affected the tiny lungs of our avian friends. How many reproduced? How were the eggs affected? How many birds lost their habitat in the Cascades? 
Still, I have a tough time digesting McPherson’s message. I’m not a calm guy like him. My whole life seems to have been fueled by anxiety. Pure cortisol. 
I’m not trying to bargain with anything or anyone here. It’s not that I harbor any illusion about the reality of existence. I turned 70 last summer. Mortality gets real at this age. Parents gone. A few friends gone. Celebrities and rock stars I grew up with, gone. David Bowie for Chrissakes is gone. Death is real. I’ve seen it happen. It ain’t pretty. It’s fucking awful. 
But the whole species!??
So, we’re not special. Despite airplanes, paper, and the Internet. Despite combinatorial algorithms, Oprah Winfrey and feminine hygiene products. Despite Hollywood and Luxor and Albert Einstein. Despite luxury sedans, electricity and acid-washed jeans. We’re not special. No more special than the trilobites and conodonts that went extinct in the Ordovician-Silurian Extinction 443.8 million years ago. 
Nevertheless, it’s hard to get off the hope boat. Everything seems so normal. People go to work, watch movies, play video games, take the kids to soccer games and (most importantly) buy food in the grocery stores. Because there is still food in the grocery stores. This amazes me. Especially when we enter the monument to gross consumption that is Costco. There is so much of everything: meat and cheese and country fresh bread. How could it possibly disappear? 
I’ve never been a big fan of hope. I’ve always slightly distrusted it. It’s an emotion. It tends to occur most intensely when there is no hope. That is to say, when reasons for hope are the thinnest and least demonstrative. When the reason for sustaining an argument is the most chimerical and fragile.
What might help us at this point? God separating the curtain of the sky and looking down and shaking his head with disappointment and sadness but showing us mercy and blowing the polar ice pack into existence again. 
A fleet of extraterrestrial ships coming to rescue us from ourselves. Passing out food and water and healing the sick. These would be Steven Spielberg extraterrestrials, not Ridley Scott extraterrestrials. 
The really malevolent, predatory and merciless extraterrestrials are in government right now. Let’s not get into that.
But no, they’re not really extraterrestrials. Mitch McConnell maybe. I don’t know what they are.
Sauli Niinistö, the President of Finland, said rather famously not long ago that if we “lose the arctic, we lose the planet.” And so that’s where my hope goes lately, that all-devouring, ineluctable emotion: the Internet. Google. YouTube. Anything, or anyone, that can give me recent information about the arctic. Sources I can trust. These would be people like Jennifer Francis, Paul Beckwith, Mark Serreze, Julienne Stroeve, Walt Meier, Ed Hawkins, James Overland, Marcel Nicolaus, Jeremy Mathis, Antoine Séjourné, Florent Dominé, and Denis Sergent. 
Séjourné, who researches geoscience at the University of Paris XI, and Florent Dominé, a researcher at the Franco-Canadian laboratory for the Tukuvik program, are studying the melting of permafrost in the Siberian and Canadian arctic. The permafrost has been frozen for thousands of years; if it melts, it will release colossal amounts of methane and accelerate global warming. 
What I generally find among these scientists is engrossing, scary, and unequivocal. We are in the midst of a planetary crisis. Our species is in big, big trouble.
Hope is the thing with feathers, said Emily Dickinson. “I’ve heard it in the chillest land - / And on the strangest Sea - / Yet – never – in Extremity, / It asked a Crumb – of me.”
I hope there are a few crumbs left in that chilliest land, the Arctic, to feed that thing with feathers, trembling and wet and dying. 

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